Of Titles and Time

{This is Part 2 in a series on libraries and digital books; Part 1 can be found here; Part 3 will appear tomorrow.} It is a plain fact that people who read more buy more books. And like any other reader, I have a list of favorite authors I discovered at random in the local library stacks—authors such as Terry Pratchett, who I found in battered paperback form in the library back when Borders was the only place Stateside you could find new Discworld novels, which I know because I checked that Borders shelf every week and bought any one I didn't already have, even if I'd already checked it out and read it at the library. And what's more, over time I've bought half that series in hardback and all of it in paper, and I have three copies of Good Omens, and when I worked in bookstores I hand-sold countless copies of Pratchett's works to untold numbers of customers.

And the same goes for Diana Wynne Jones, and for Patricia C. Wrede, and who knows how many other names.

Yet HarperCollins and some other publishers believe that library lending does not lead to a "commercially viable solution." So all the royalties for all those books I bought myself and encouraged others to buy went—where, exactly?

And this is why we have to talk about entitlement again, because decisions like HarperCollins' much-maligned digital checkout implies a certain amount of entitlement on the publisher's behalf: We own these books and we will not let you look at them unless you meet our standards for proper readership. And if I do not meet those standards I will not get to read those books, and this will sting, because many of my favorite romance authors write for Avon (a HarperCollins imprint)—but it will not sting too long because like many others, I have a pile of other books at my elbow just itching to be read, and loved, and recommended. A publisher is no more entitled to my money than a reader is entitled to that publisher's copyrighted content.

Surely I'm not the only one who feels this is a little too close to the pattern of Mutually Assured Destruction? Publishers attempt to increase sales in ways that make things more difficult for readers to read the book, which makes readers of that particular publisher's books more scarce, which makes the publishers even more anxious to increase sales, and so on.

Two people, a white man and a white woman, each holding an open book smashed up against each other's face, so that they cannot see anything else including each other.

Before someone leaps up on a table and yells, "Information wants to be free!", let's make one thing clear: information does not want anything. People want things. And one of the things people want most of all is to participate in the culture or subculture that provides them with meaning, whether that's romance or religion or fantasy fiction. Books and music and movies have a value that is beyond the financial and does not correspond precisely with the dollar value such things may be assigned.

Is it a type of entitlement, that I want people to be able to participate in whatever culture they choose, regardless of their income level?

Here is one person who says yes: Cindy Orr, Overdrive Library Consultant and member of the ALA Presidential Task Force on Equitable Access to Electronic Content:

I would like to add that we need to educate ourselves and act within the arena that exists right now while we plan for, and try to influence the future. That doesn’t mean that we can’t work to revise copyright law, or try to negotiate new models, or change anything else, but it’s fruitless to argue that all works should be available to the public for free regardless of their copyright status.

As we saw yesterday with Leslie Hulce, Cindy Orr's example is an extreme one: that librarians want all books to be available free of charge to the public.

Let me say this again, though it's starting to feel like Broken Record Time: Librarians are not objecting to the purchase price of an ebook. They are not trying to deny the publisher's interest in making a profit. They are merely objecting to the imposition of an artificial expiration date. Especially since the number 26 bears an awfully strong resemblance to a year-long period of two-week check-outs, rather than any reasonable parallel to the number of times a print book will be checked out over the course of its lifespan.

The longevity of a text is not a secondary concern for libraries, because what makes a library a library is that it is an archive. Readers buy books to enjoy, bookstores buy books to resell, and libraries buy books to collect and preserve. Different libraries require different strategies—there's a whole post waiting to be written on the difference between a university library's special collections and your local public library's children's section—but every library to some extent is outside the ebb and flow of time as the rest of the book world sees it (new releases, bestseller lists, this year's award winners).

And I feel very strongly that there must be a connection between the point when I was scouring the library and used bookstores for all the Pratchett I could get my grubby little hands on, and the point when someone decided to bring all those earlier Discworld books back into print. The book world is not a feudal state with the publisher as king and the readers as hapless peons—it is an ecosystem, where every part of it both feeds on an nourishes every other part.

The real problem is not that libraries make books available to the public: the problem is that we do not have reliable data on how library readership affects book sales. And until we do, HarperCollins and other publishers will continue to treat libraries as retailers, and the book world as a whole will suffer.

{More about time, checkout time, and HarperCollins in Part 3 of this series tomorrow.}